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What does it mean when an Italian touches their nose?

Touching or tapping one’s nose can have various meanings in Italian culture. Some common associations include warning someone or indicating a secret, referring to someone who is drunk, or expressing skepticism or distrust. The specific meaning depends on the context and how the gesture is performed.

Quick Answers

– Touching the nose can be a warning gesture in Italy, telling someone to stop what they are saying or be careful about a sensitive topic.

– It can also imply that something is supposed to be a secret or confidential information that shouldn’t be shared openly.

– An exaggerated nose tap may indicate that someone is drunk or tipsy.

– A slight nose touch can suggest skepticism, uncertainty, or distrust about what another person is saying.

Origin and History

The nose tapping gesture has a long history in Italian culture. Some theorize that it dates back to Roman times as a nonverbal way of communication. One origin story links it to the Roman god Janus, who was often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions. Touching the nose was thought to invoke Janus to help keep secrets.

Another related theory posits that the gesture comes from the Italian word “janara” meaning witch or the evil eye. Touching the nose would ward off bad omens from jealous onlookers. The evil eye superstition remains common in Italy today.

Whatever its exact origin, nose touching developed into a customary gesture over the centuries. By the Middle Ages, it was an established signal among Italian merchants and traders. The meaning could range from conveying doubt in a transaction to identifying fellow secret society members.

The practice persisted into modern times and took on additional nuances. Today it is ubiquitous in Italy, with children learning the cultural significance from a young age. The advent of film and television in the 20th century helped standardize and spread the gesture internationally as a recognized Italian custom.

Meaning as a Warning

One of the most common interpretations of the nose touch in Italy is as a nonverbal warning. It signals to the recipient that they need to stop talking or be careful about sensitive issues.

Some examples of this include:

– Tapping the nose when someone is close to revealing a secret or confidential information. This tells them to stop before going too far.

– Quietly touching your own nose as a reminder to choose words carefully when discussing tricky subjects in mixed company.

– Rubbing the nose when someone is displaying indiscretion or lack of tact as a prompt to redirect the conversation.

– Briefly touching the nose to advise caution about making bold claims or accusations without proof.

– Subtly motions toward the nose as a prompt to interrupt a compromising disclosure.

This use relies on a common cultural understanding among Italians. The nose tap conveys the unspoken message to tread carefully or hold one’s tongue. Using it avoids calling someone out directly when discretion is needed.

In Conversation

In dialogue, an Italian may touch their nose when sensitive topics arise as a polite warning cue. For instance:

Speaker A: I heard an interesting rumor about Signor Bianchi’s finances…

Speaker B: *touches nose* Ah, well, we shouldn’t speculate too much.


Speaker A: Did you hear who Silvia’s new boyfriend is? I was so surprised when I found out-

Speaker B: *discreet nose tap* Oh, we don’t need to get into gossip.

This demonstrates how the nose touch allows for subtle signals to redirect or interrupt an imprudent conversation. No confrontational correction is needed.

Indicating Secrets

Closely related to its use as a warning, the nose tap in Italy can also denote secrets or confidential information. When someone touches their nose in conversation, it may imply:

– There is more to the story that cannot be told openly.

– Shared history or context exists between the speakers that outsiders are not aware of.

– Certain details need to remain between just the speakers as privileged information.

– There are unspoken understandings, private matters, or undisclosed factors relevant to the discussion.

For example, an Italian may touch their nose when discussing business deals, local politics, family relationships, or other sensitive subjects. This signifies insider knowledge without revealing private details to everyone present.

Again, this use allows Italians to diplomatically communicate topics that require discretion. The nose touch conveys a silent understanding about sensitive information.


Some hypothetical examples include:

– Two old friends chatting about a third friend’s job, with one saying “You know how Lucia got that promotion so quickly?” while tapping their nose, implying there is more than meets the eye.

– A boss describing a former employee to someone by saying “Marco was let go for certain reasons” while subtly touching his nose, suggesting undisclosed details.

– Discussing a couple’s relationship and nodding with a nose tap to indicate suspected behind-the-scenes marital troubles without spreading gossip.

– Commenting “We came to an arrangement that worked well for all” while gesturing toward the nose, suggesting a financially beneficial undisclosed business deal.

In these situations, the nose touch conveys that there are secrets being hinted at yet properly kept confidential.

Someone Who is Drunk

A comical and exaggerated use of the nose touch in Italy implies tipsiness or drunkenness. The gesture involves tapping one’s nose repeatedly in an ostentatious manner.

This is done as a joke to jokingly call out someone who has had too much wine, beer, or liquor. Their drinking is evident in their behavior, flushed face, poor coordination, etc. The nose tap signals their intoxicated state in a teasing or humorous way.

This meaning may also manifest as tapping one’s own nose in a self-deprecating manner if feeling buzzed after imbibing alcohol. It’s a tongue-in-cheek admission of being a bit drunk or less than sober.

Among Friends

Friends may banter using the drunk nose tap at bars or parties when one has overindulged. For example:

Luca stumbling over his words: I’m perfec-perfectly fine…

Marco laughing while tapping his own nose repeatedly in response.

Or at a lively wedding reception:

Anna after one too many glasses of wine, dancing wildly: Whooo!

Giada jokingly taps Anna’s nose in a teasing way to say she’s drunk.

So in casual social settings, the nose tap can point out tipsiness in a lighthearted manner among friends. It pokes fun without being confrontational.

Skepticism or Distrust

A more nuanced meaning of the Italian nose touch involves expressing skepticism, disbelief, uncertainty, or mistrust. A slight, brief tap of the nose can quietly signal doubt about the truth or accuracy of a statement.

This is often done as an alternative to openly challenging what someone is saying. The subtle nose touch enables polite disagreement or invites further explanation.

For example, during a heated discussion, a slight nose touch may mean:

– I’m not sure I believe that claim.

– I have doubts about the facts you’re presenting.

– That seems unlikely – are you certain?

– I’m picking up on inconsistencies or evasiveness in your account.

– Your statement contradicts previous information.

– Do you have anything to back that up?

Rather than bluntly accusing someone of lying or being mistaken, the nose touch allows skepticism to be communicated diplomatically. It can turn the conversation to clarifying facts and evidence.

During Debates

You may see this during political debates or business negotiations in Italy when participants tap their nose subtly to signal doubts without rudeness:

CEO: Our studies found customer satisfaction has increased 30% this quarter…

Board Member: *slight nose tap* Is that so? What data are you referencing?

Or during a campaign debate:

Candidate A: I have always supported sensible reforms to that legislation.

Candidate B: *discreet nose touch* That doesn’t align with your previous opposition though.

This demonstrates how the nose touch can inject polite skeptism into heated discussions.

Regional Differences

While the nose tapping gesture is well-known across Italy, there are some regional and local differences worth noting:

– In Southern Italy, especially Naples, it may be performed using the index knuckle instead of the fingertip.

– Fast vigorous taps can suggest anger or offence taken, rather than just skepticism.

– Sicily has an additional meaning as a sign of longing or missing someone.

– Touching the ridge of the nose rather than tip can signal disapproval or rebuke.

– Curling the nose signifies being deceived by half-truths in some central and northern regions.

– Half closing the eyes while touching the nose increases the intensity and seriousness of the warning.

– Neapolitans may subtly graze the chin after a nose tap for extra emphasis.

So there are various local flavors in how the nose touch is executed and interpreted. But the core meanings around secrecy, deceit, caution, and drunkenness are consistent nationally.

Dialect Differences

Regional dialects impact gestures too. For example:

– In Bolognese slang, a forceful nose flick means “Go away!” or “Get lost!”

– In Sicilian, repeated nose taps mean “You sly dog!” referring to someone’s craftiness.

– Roman dialect links the nose touch to the term “arfemo” meaning “I saw/understand”.

– Milanese dialect uses an exaggerated nose tap to signal being penniless or broke.

So diverse dialects add many nuances to the Italian nose touching gesture.

In Body Language

Some key points about the role of the nose touch within the broader context of Italian body language:

– Nose tapping occupies the gestural space near the eyes, reflecting its correlation with secrets, deceit, and skepticism.

– It is performed with the fingertips to allow for subtlety and precision in gesturing.

– The rest of the body stays fairly neutral when nose tapping, without much other motion.

– The intensity of the tap can communicate the degree of feeling behind the message.

– Nose touching is rarely sustained for more than a brief moment.

– It is considered rude or offensive to tap someone else’s nose outside of close relationships.

– Italians often touch their own nose even when speaking indirectly about secrecy or distrust.

– The gesture’s longevity speaks to how engrained it is within Italian culture and habits.

– It serves as a unique “vocabulary” in Italian nonverbal communication.

So in summary, the nose touch is an established, nuanced, and widely understood gesture in the Italian cultural lexicon.

In Art and Media

The ubiquitous Italian nose tapping gesture appears across:

Classic Art

– Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller (1594) shows a young man touching his nose as an older woman picks his pocket, as he falls victim to her deceit.

– Raphael’s School of Athens (1510) includes a figure of Socrates touching his nose as he makes a philosophical point, hinting at the deeper wisdom hidden within his ideas.

– Lorenzo Lippi’s Still Life with Four Figures (1665) features a skeleton tapping its nasal bone, symbolizing the secrecy of death.

Contemporary Art

– Maurizio Cattelan’s 2001 sculpture Frank and Jamie has two uniformed police officers touching their noses as if sharing confidential gossip.

– Photographer Dino Pedriali captures everyday nose tapping gestures in his candid street photography series Italian Anonymous.

Television and Film

– Characters in The Sopranos frequently touch their noses when alluding to Mafia business, sending warnings, and implying undisclosed truths.

– Marcello Mastroianni uses an exaggerated nose tap in the film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) to jokingly call out a female character’s tipsiness.

– In Letters to Juliet (2010), a romantic lead touches his nose when skeptically hearing about the legend of Juliet’s letter-answering secretaries.

So the nose touch permeates Italian culture and appears across art forms in symbolic and practical ways.

In Language and Idioms

Italian is full of idiomatic phrases referencing the nose that connect to deeper meanings signaled by the nose touch gesture:

– Fare il naso (make a nose) – to take offense at something

– Prender per il naso (take by the nose) – to deceive someone

– Naso dritto (straight nose) – intuition or a sixth sense

– Turarsi il naso (plug one’s nose) – to turn a blind eye or play dumb

– Avere il naso lungo (have a long nose) – to be perceptive or nosy

– Non vedere più in là del proprio naso (not seeing beyond your own nose) – short-sighted

– Stare col naso per aria (walking with your nose in the air) – to seem arrogant

So the nose features heavily in idiomatic speech, correlating with the symbolic meanings around secrecy, distrust, skepticism, drunkenness, and perception.

Common Sayings

Some common Italian sayings using the term “nose” include:

– Non farmi toccare il naso! – Don’t treat me like a fool!

– Seguire il naso – Follow your instincts

– Conta più il naso del cliente che il naso del salumiere – The customer’s nose matters more than the deli owner’s (the customer is always right)

– Occhio vuole la sua parte, e il naso ancor sua – The eyes and nose each want their share (appearances matter)

Again, the strong linguistic and cultural associations indicate the embedded significance of the nose and the related gesture.


The Italian nose touch is a complex, versatile form of nonverbal communication and cultural expression. With nuanced meanings around secrecy, deceit, skepticism, intoxication, and more, it serves as a unique gesture in the Italian lexicon.

Mastering nose tapping conventions can help navigate tricky conversations and social situations in Italy diplomatically. From classic art to modern media and idioms, the nose and its symbolism permeate Italian culture.

So pay attention to the nasal area next time you are in Italy! You may pick up on unspoken messages being transmitted via discreet fingertip taps. Just don’t stare too closely at other people’s noses – that could cause offense by implying they are hiding something!